Category Archives: teaching

Twenty Years!?

I saw a Facebook post recently which reminded me of something. Well, not so much ‘reminded me’ of something, more like hit me over the head with something. It’s been twenty years since I had my first story published. Twenty fucking years. I was going to say it’s been twenty years since I started writing, but that wouldn’t be strictly true. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. My first published story was called Monkey Man, and it came out in a Welsh literature magazine called Cambrensis some time in 1997. It was a different landscape back then. In the late-nineties there was a thriving small press consisting of various genre mags as opposed to a glut of websites. I also had some early success in Raw Nerve, the Asphalt Jungle, Roadworks, Tales of the Grotesque & Arabesque and several others. The thing was, even back then I was very conscious of getting paid for my efforts, and the vast majority of these titles didn’t offer anything except ‘exposure.’ In fact, when you consider materials, printing and postage expenses, in the pre-digital age it actually cost money to submit to publications. It was a two-way street. Being physical entities, it meant these magazines cost money to put together and distribute.

Having flunked all my exams (even English) I was working in a factory at the time for minimum wage. Mostly, I put things in boxes. Soap, shampoo, pills. You name it, I’d put it in a box. I wanted to find some way of generating extra income, so I started submitting feature ideas to newsstand magazines. This was when shows like the X Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were at their peak, and this was manifested in the popularity of paranormal-themed publications like Fortean Times, Enigma and Beyond. I soon found my little niche, and what was more, they paid! They paid pretty well, actually. Sometimes, I would get as much money for one 2000-word feature as I would for an entire week slaving in the factory. My magazine work and general fascination with the weird and fucked-up led to me researching and writing my first book, Into the Dragon’s Lair: A Supernatural History of Wales, which was eventually published by a mid-size Welsh publisher called Gwasg Carreg Gwalch in 2003. Into the Dragon’s Lair set my life on a different path. It was targeted mainly at the tourist trade, and generated a lot of media interest. Several national newspapers did stories about it, and I was a guest on a live Radio Wales programme. It all resulted in a division of the Welsh government giving me a grant to go to university as a mature student.

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I had a choice of two; Carlisle and Southampton. I chose the latter because growing up I was a big Matt Le Tissier fan, who played for Southampton FC. It was that simple. Two weeks later, I was enrolled on a journalism degree and working part time as a barman at the football stadium. I’d hardly left Wales before. In my spare time, I decided to knuckle down and write ‘The Great Welsh Novel,’ a partly autobiographical tale called Rainbow’s End. It took a couple of years, but as soon as it was finished it was snapped up by a new start-up publisher called Flarefont, who promptly went bankrupt. During this time, I also started working on a book about Cardiff City FC, which eventually came out in 2014, again on Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, after another publisher strung me along for about three years until eventually pulling the plug.

From the Ashes F

During university, one of the most beneficial things I did, was go on work experience placements at every magazine that would take me (Front, Ice, Maxim, FHM). I learned more during those two-week placements than I did in three years of university, and I managed to form relationships that would serve me well later in my career. After I graduated from university, I freelanced for a year, writing features for Nuts, Record Collector, Rock Sounds, Urban Ink, Chat… It’s Fate, and anyone else who would pay me, before bunking off to China to teach English. I mainly worked at universities, which meant I had a lot of free time during which I continued to freelance, adding China to my list of specialist topics. One freezing Spring Festival in Tianjin, through sheer boredom, I started writing fiction again, a full nine years after my last published effort. Perhaps this explains why some people assume I am relatively ‘new’ to the scene. Nah, mate. Been here a while. Just had a rest. Over the next couple of years I wrote Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story and Dead of Night (both published by Damnation Books), and Devil’s Island (Rainstorm Press), as well as a clutch of short stories, which would appear in Screams of Terror, Gore, Siren’s Call, the Literary Hatchet, Trigger Warning, Deadman’s Tome, and a few anthologies.

Then, in 2012, I had another huge stroke of luck. A Staff Writer job came up at Nuts magazine and I was given a shot at it mainly because the deputy editor had somehow noticed some of my funny quips on social media. I flew back from China and was suddenly zipping around London fraternizing with models and film stars. But times were already hard in the ‘lad mag’ market, and getting progressively harder. I was soon got laid off as the sector went through its death throes. I reinvented myself as a sports journalist, and landed a job on the new-fangled Sports Direct magazine. That, too, went belly-up for entirely different reasons, and was re-launched as Forever Sports (later FS). After a couple of years as Senior Writer I was offered a promotion and a pay rise, and asked to move to another new launch at a different publishing company. It didn’t work out. I butted heads with my new editor for a while, then left to go back to freelance, and the new launch sank like the Titanic. By this time I was beginning to realize that the magazine industry was a ruthless arena with very little in the way of job security.

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Parallel to my magazine career, I took advantage of the rise in self-publishing and put out a steady stream of material. To help keep a degree of separation from my day job(s) I modified by name for fiction. There were some things I wrote while I was in China (including Sker House, and No Man’s Land: Horror in the Trenches) which just needed tweaking, and I also started gathering my previously-published short stories into a series of collections. I’ve lost a lot of faith in publishing companies, so I much prefer to put these things out myself. That way I can maintain complete control over every aspect of the process from the cover art to the contents and pricing. These days, I make a living by maintaining several revenue streams, fiction and magazine work being just two components. It isn’t easy, but it’s the life I chose. The past two decades have been a hell of a ride. I’ve done things I never thought I would do, and seen things I never thought I would see. I’ve met some amazing people, more than a few cunts, and lived in 12 different places, in eight different towns and cities, in three different countries. I’ve come to realize that moving around is a big part of my identity. I get restless if I stay in one place for too long. I need the constant sense of ‘newness.’ It keeps me focused. All things considered, I’ve far exceeded my own expectations, and anything beats working in that factory.

I can’t wait to see what the next twenty brings.

 

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Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story (Uncut)

My latest book, Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story (uncut) is out now on ebook and paperback. As the title suggests, it’s a partially re-written and expanded version of an earlier release. The original Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story came out on Damnation Books back in in 2009. I was never truly happy with that version.

By the time Damnation Books was absorbed by another publishing house and consequently vanished off the face of the earth a few years later, the contract we had decreed that all rights regarding the book had reverted back to me. That meant, it was free for me to do with what I wanted, and I felt a remix was in order.

14f

When Jerry leaves his old life in London behind and travels to Beijing to take up a teaching position, at first he is enchanted by the brave new world he finds waiting for him. However, things soon take a turn for the worse. Upon his arrival he learns of the mysterious disappearance of his predecessor, and after he moves into his new apartment he is plagued by strange dreams in which he shares the dwelling, and his bed, with a ghostly entity. Then things start going bump in the night, and Jerry soon finds himself embroiled in the kind of supernatural drama that had previously been unthinkable to him.

An encounter with a fortune teller with a difference proves the catalyst for a new wave of terror and eventually, he is forced into the accepting the realization that something else was waiting for him on the other side of the world, and perhaps even in the next world. What’s more, his time is quickly running out.

Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story (Uncut)  is out now.

Bonus content:

Inside Apartment 14F (essay)

Little Dead Girl (short story)


Little Virgin Boy Pee Eggs

Today is Chinese New Year! That means it’s time for another China story from the vault. I’ve posted quite a lot here about China, like the time I ate brains and the time I got to be Bad Santa. There was also the snake shop, and when I got pulled in Shanghai airport and some beefy security guards tried to take my cheese off me. No way, mister! Even the most mundane things, like getting a haircut, take on a whole new meaning in the Middle Kingdom.

In 2009-2010 I lived in an extremely inhospitable northern industrial city called Tianjin. I imagine it was a bit like a Chinese Middlesbrough. I only went there to be closer to a girl I was dating, who then promptly dumped me for another dude leaving me alone, miserable and stuck in a job I hated. Said job was teaching English in a primary school. It wasn’t the teaching I disliked. it was the kids. There, I said it. It’s probably hard enough trying to educate children that young when you speak the same language, but at least then you can reason with them. If you don’t speak the same language, forget it. It’s like fighting a war with no weapons. Every class was anarchy.

Eventually I hit on the bright idea of rewarding the good kids with lollipops, hoping the naughty ones would see what they were missing and fall in line. It didn’t quite work out like that. Instead, every kid who didn’t get a lollipop threw an epic temper tantrum. Mostly products of the one-child policy, they were a mass of Little Emperors. They broke me. Regularly. I would cave in and give them all lollipops just to shut them up, costing myself a small fortune in sugary bribes.

One of the few things I liked about this school was the little breakfast stall stationed outside, selling a selection of traditional local food, along with some more normal fare like boiled eggs and corn on the cob. I stopped by there most mornings. It was cheap, and saved me time.

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There was a lot I didn’t like about the school. But the worst thing were the toilets. Toilets in China are gruesome places at the best of times. But in the school there were no locks on the doors, because the little shits would shut themselves in. That meant whenever I used it, I had a swarm of kids around me pointing and laughing. It was enough to give anyone a complex.

I noticed the boys all peed in buckets, which struck me as a bit weird. But lots of things struck me as a bit weird in China, and the buckets of piss just blended in with all the other weirdness. People would come in sporadically, carry the full buckets out, and come back with empty ones. Presumably, they were emptying them down a drain somewhere. I didn’t know, and frankly, I didn’t care. I didn’t think much about it. Until one day, when I was talking to my teaching assistant and he told me something that first confused me, then horrified me to the core. The school was selling the pee. Those people who came in to take out the buckets of piss were actually paying the school for the privilege.

“What? Who would buy buckets of pee?”

“People.”

“What people?”

“Like the people at the breakfast stall where you go in the mornings.”

“Why?”

“Tong zi dan.”

“What’s that in English?”

“Not sure. Little virgin boy pee egg or something.”

He explained that in some regions of China, Tianjin included, urine from young boys, preferably under the age of ten is harvested. It is boiled, and eggs are soaked in it for a few hours. Then the shells are cracked, presumably to let the pissy goodness inside, and it is boiled some more. The practice has been going on for centuries, and is tied to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). Eating little virgin boy piss eggs is said to reduce high blood pressure, stop you catching a cold, and relieve joint pain, and I’d been unwittingly eating them for months.

I’ve never been able to look at a boiled egg in quite the same way since.


Trigger Warning #6

I am pleased to report that my short story, Little Dead Girl, is included in Trigger Warning #6deadgirl-945x945As you can probably gather, I wrote Little Dead Girl when I was in living in China. I tried to convey some of the isolation and disassociation you feel when immersed in a different culture, and the surreal sense of  unreality that permeates everything you do. The artist who illustrated the story, John Skewes, captures the mood perfectly.

Little Dead Girl was yet another story based on one of my fucked up dreams, probably inspired by the evil Little Emperors I was teaching at the time. Believe me, some of them deserved to be kicked down a flight of stairs or three. To this day, I can still remember the dream vividly, and it still gives me chills.

You can read Little Dead Girl for free HERE

 


What’s in a Name?

This week is Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival. Confusing because in the West it’s neither New Year or Spring. Anyway, this is the Year of the Sheep. To celebrate, here is a little glimpse inside Chinese culture.

During my time as an English teacher in China I met, and tried my level best to engage with, probably a couple of thousand students, with very mixed results. The vast majority were 18 to 22 years old and had limited English capabilities, even though most had been ‘learning’ the language since they were kids.

Not many classrooms have heating. This one didn't.

Not many classrooms have heating. This one didn’t.

To aid their education, the students are encouraged to take English names. It is supposed to help them identify with the language and more importantly, makes things slightly easier for foreign teachers. Most of the boys named themselves after basketball players or footballers they idolise. Every class had at least one or two Bryants, Lebrons, James’ and Davids, in which case I had to give them numbers after their name to differentiate between them. Bryant 1, Bryant 2, Bryant 3, etc.

There were also the customary smattering of cutsie girls names; Amy, Janet, Mary, etc. As mundane as they are, at least these names can be considered normal. However, a fair percentage had some pretty ridiculous names. Every foreign teacher will have come across this, and could probably supply their own expansive lists.

I know its childish and immature to make fun of people’s names, but these are not ‘real’ names. More often than not, they are just random English words the student likes the sound of. Some change their new, ‘names’ regularly, while others stick doggedly to the same non-name until they realise how stupid it is then get another one. Others kept forgetting their English names and didn’t respond even if you did remember it.

Welcome to the bizarre world of Chinese student’s ‘English names.

name-change-blackboard

Boys:

Aubrey, Casper, Cookie, Heaven, Blind, Black, Bing, Bet, Boss, Tail, Mars, Lemon, Wolf, Poseidon, Kite, Felix, Jonny X, Winter, Wisdom, Note

Girls:

Delete, Lenovo, Kitty, Emple, Emperor, Shiner, Five, Six, Seven, Turkey, Fairy, Darling, Momo, Panda, Canary, Funny, Flower, Volume, Crayon, Yoghurt, Soulmate, Dolly, Rainy, Sunny, Dolphin, Blossom, Nonchalant, Sin, Cipher, Bamboo, Jammy, Kamy, Lark, Oren, Oscar, Tequila, Wonderful.

The award for the most ridiculous name of all, however, goes to… Lube. The poor, confused thing. And a special mention should go to the most questionable CHINESE name I came across:

Wang Ke

Weirdly, as much as I protested, Wang Ke was one of the few that flatly refused to get an English name. Priceless.


Back to Reality

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It’s six months since I came back from China. And six months since I stopped trying to be a teacher and moved to London to work for a magazine. And only now I can put things in perspective a bit. At first I suffered from a weird kind of reverse-culture shock. After the best part of six years being submersed in one of the weirdest cultures in the world, even adapting to the UK again was traumatic. One afternoon I bought a meal deal in Tesco, and got served by a robot. Surreal.

In the time I’ve been away, a lot of my friends and family have moved on with their lives, got married, had babies (some of my friends seem to have a new one every year) or got themselves divorced or dead. For more than half a decade I called different little parts of China ‘home’, eventually settling in Changsha, Hunan Province. In the meantime, in my real hometown in the Welsh valleys, which I visited for a couple of months each summer, everything changed but stayed the same. Everything of note that had happened since my last visit got jammed into two months worth of drinking time. Then I had to remember all the relevant details, file them away, and leave again.

Meanwhile, the same thing was happening in my other life in Changsha. Just because you are not there, it doesn’t mean life stops. Far from it. If anything, life moves much faster in a place where the unofficial motto is ‘Go hard or go home.’ All in all, the past six years have required a lot of adjusting. I’ve been a social chameleon. With varying degrees of success. A bit like a 21st Century Paul Young. Wherever I lay my rucksack, that’s my home. For a while.

After the shock of settling back into society wore off and I settled into the job, I got too busy to write much at home. I also spent a fair chunk of time in the pub, obviously. And a lot more time than I would like on subways and trains. When the weekend rolls around, I can’t wait to have a lie in. This 9-5 lark is pretty brutal. Especially with a 2-hour commute each way. I knew that, which is why I avoided it for as long as I could. It’s a far cry from having two classes a day followed by a five-minute walk across campus in the sunshine.

Hunan Mass Media College, Changsha

Hunan Mass Media College, Changsha

Never mind, I had a good innings out there on the edge of normal society. Time to step back in line, I suppose. This is where I belong. I’m pretty sure of that now. I think.

Some people take teaching very seriously. To some its a vocation. Good for them, but I was never one of those people. I wasn’t the worst teacher in the world. I think I got better with time. It was hard to get any worse considering that when I first started at one of the most prestigious universities in Beijing, I had no teacher training. None at all. I was just given a text book, thrown in front of a class of would-be airline pilots, and told to ‘teach something.’ As my career progressed, I would consider myself lucky to even be given a text book.

I had some pretty awful lessons. I’ve crashed and burned so many times. I almost started a classroom riot one day after making a throw-away comment about ‘the Tibet problem’ in a particularly touchy class. The funny thing is, I don’t even give much of a shit about Tibet. I said as much, in slightly different words, and that just got me in more trouble. Oh well…

I had some good lessons too. There are some students I’ve stayed in touch with for four or five years now. But you never remember the really good lessons. I like to think it’s because by the end there were so many of them, my frazzled mind couldn’t keep track of them all. But I might be wrong about that. The bad ones, however, are burned into my mind. There is no lonelier place on earth than being on a stage in front of forty pairs of expectant eyes when your lesson plan has just failed, you have absolutely nothing to say, and you still have twenty minutes of lesson time to kill.

Goodbye, class!

Goodbye, class!

But you learn a lot about yourself in testing situations. If I’d wanted a safe, easy life I would never have gone.


Finding the Time

During Spring Festival 2012, which ran through January into February in China, I was an ESL teacher, which meant an extended break from class. One of the best things about being a teacher, especially at a university, is all the holidays.

Being a frustrated writer, I made it my first mission to submit everything I had lying gathering dust on my hard drive. Novels, novellas, short stories, articles, everything. As it turned out, it was a worth-while exercise. My love life might have been a perpetual mess, but writing-wise, 2012 was the most successful year of my career by far with a novel, a novella and eight short stories published in different places, along with a couple of articles and a bunch of reviews. Paradoxically, I didn’t actually write much more new material other than a new novella set in World War I called No Man’s Land, and a few short stories.

What I did do, apart from submit everything I had, was re-write the first book in my Joshua Wyrdd teenage adventure series for a publisher, who then rejected it anyway. Great start. After that I edited and re-edited the two books that did end up coming out last year, Devil’s Island (on Rainstorm Press) and Rainbow’s End (Flarefont Publishing). At the same time I worked on a screenplay for a client and a book I ghosted for a friend who recently had a stroke. I also kept up a steady stream of reviews for Morpheus Tales magazine.

I set up this blog in the summer of 2012 and set about trying to get a following, then I concentrated on trying to promote Devil’s Island. I sent out around a dozen review copies, and emailed around 50 horror magazines and websites offering review copies and/or a guest blogs, profiles, or interviews. In the interests of shameless self-promotion, I also updated my Amazon Author Central and Author’s Den pages, and did a lot of marketing on Facebook, etc. No sooner was the Devil’s Island promo stint over, then the whole thing began again with Rainbow’s End, only this time it was even harder as I was trying to break a new market, the subject matter not being what I usually write about.

No matter what else I’m doing, I always try to keep an eye open for any new markets and maintain my submission rate. That takes up a fair chunk of time. I keep other things up to date; my Duotrope tracker (when it was a free service), my professional log, where I keep notes on all my submissions, successes and failures, and various other things I have going at any one time, like my ‘Strange Communications’ file where I record some of the funnier or more bizarre verbal exchanges I have with (usually Chinese) people. Some weeks, that expands at an alarming rate. In addition, I read as widely as time allows.

I’m not complaining. I know nothing worthwhile is easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it. Also, I’m a firm believer in the philosophy that generally speaking, people are selfish bastards and do what they want most of the time. Meaning that if I didn’t really want to do these things, I wouldn’t. I’d watch TV or get drunk instead. I don’t know what drives me, that’s a whole other blog – one I intend to write after the intensive therapy sessions. Joke. I just know that wherever possible, I do what makes me happy. In the words of the great Bruce Springsteen… It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive!

But damn it, I wish there were more hours in a day. I never feel satisfied, I always feel like I could have done more. I get the feeling I’m racing against the clock. Which is exactly what I’m doing, every day, in a sense.

And so are you.


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